Written by Forrest Maynock
Akira Kurosawa was a genius filmmaker. His additions to the lexicon of cinema are countless, and his well of influence is deeper than possibly imaginable.
Rashomon (1950) is just one of his masterworks that Kurosawa created in his lifetime, but it’s influence extends beyond just being “another” of Kurosawa’s films. If I were to create a list of most influential films in cinema history, Rashomon, along with several other Kurosawa films, would be included on that list.
Rashomon follows a quite simple premise: There was a murder, and there were four witnesses with four varying accounts. Each account seems to contradict the last, and each paints the characters involved in a different light.
The characters involved all have their own biases and self-interest to prop up their accounts. Toshiro Mifune’s character, Tajomaru the bandit, is interested in self aggrandizement, the wife and samurai husband are both interested in saving face, and the woodcutter seems to want truth, but even his own involvement in the case clouds the actual reality. The audience is left to question the true reality and piece together the puzzle that has been presented to them.
Much like the later 12 Angry Men (1957), Rashomon questions the reliability of eyewitness testimony as every witness in this case has a different story. While 12 Angry Men tackles this issue in the context of an actual courtroom procedural, Rashomon makes the viewers the judge and jury having each witness face the camera and give their account to a speechless judge and jury, answering questions that you the viewer are likely pondering.
The film’s acting is top notch from everyone involved. Toshiro Mifune in particular shows off his acting chops by playing the wild bandit, a stern bandit, and even a cowardly bandit. His range of emotion and conviction alone is something to behold. He is one of the few actors that can have you laughing at one moment and holding your breath the very next. Mifune’s performance in Rashomon is particularly impressive because of the fractured nature of the story. I personally liken this performance to four different individuals using a single body to play a single character.
Rashomon also includes one of the single greatest sword fights put to film. The fight itself is nothing to write home about, but the emotion and absurd realism of it elevates it to another level of film sword fighting. The fight is shown from two different perspectives, and while the first perspective’s fight is acceptable it pales in comparison to the second perspective which is almost worth the price of admission on its own. The second version of the fight contains a high level of realism, comedy, and edge of your seat suspense as two men clash as if their lives were actually on the line. It is a sight to behold.
From a technical and cinematic standpoint this is one of Kurosawa’s most impressive feats. The camera work and use of angles is especially used well in this feature, and the use of multiple perspectives, or “Rashomon effect” has left its mark in the cinema landscape. When thinking of the “Rashomon effect” I specifically think of the 2005 film Hoodwinked! (not a particularly good film), not simply because it was my first exposure to the effect, but because the film uses the effect to its fullest making each person’s account of their story more and more exaggerating as the film goes on. Additionally I think of 2014’s Gone Girl, which has a very interesting use of the effect (no spoilers here).
The film may fall short for some in the story and emotional attachment department. The film is almost like four separate short stories written in the same creative writing class being put together with a loose structure made to hold them together. It works, but some may see cracks. This may appeal to people who prefer more episodic or bite sized stories, but for the fragmented story and unresolved mystery many may see the film as off putting. Do not be mistaken, the film was designed to be unresolved, but many average moviegoers may find the lack of a definitive resolution to the mystery presented throughout the film a bit disappointing.
Rashomon is Kurosawa’s first of many masterpieces. Without it cinema would not look the same as it does today.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Chung and everyone from the term 1 & 2 Film and Literature course of 2020 for their participation.